Short Story
                               That Which Does Not Kill Us
                                                                    By Jim Mountfield


    Andrew rode past a small red panel of fur.  It was glued to the asphalt by an under layer of rotted flesh.  
“The least-used road in England,” he whispered.  “Yet you managed to get run over, Mr Squirrel.  What a
fucking loser.”

    The road steepened and he had to stand on the bicycle-pedals, legs cranking up and down while the
chain strained on the lowest of eighteen gears.  The sun wasn’t long risen but already he wore only shorts,
socks, trainers and a helmet and his bare skin glistened with sweat.  Rows of Sitka spruce trees covered
the slope above and below him, packed together and intermeshed so that one tree was indistinguishable
from the next, branches moving with eerie synchronicity in the breeze.  Ahead, the road twisted in and out
of view while it followed the indentations in the forested hillside – all the time going up.

    Through gritted teeth now, Andrew said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

    He saw a glint of reflected sunlight from the most distant road-bend, indicating the approach of a car.  
This was the first car he’d seen since leaving the youth hostel in Sighty.

    The thought of the village reminded him of the phone conversation he’d had last night with Janine.  
When he’d told her where he was staying, she’d said worriedly, “Sighty?  Be careful, Andy.  People there
are weird.”

    “What?” he’d laughed.  “Weirder even than in Caulshiels?”  Caulshiels was the Scottish town, across
the England-Scotland border from Sighty, where Janine lived with her family.

    “Believe me, they make Caulshiels folk seem normal.  Some weekends they come up here and drink in
the pubs.  And they go crazy.  Behave like animals.  They’re unhinged, Andy.”

    This didn’t surprise him.  Sighty was a few streets of semi-detached, municipal-style housing that, in the
1950’s, the Forestry Commission had built for its workers in the middle of the then-nascent spruce
plantations.  Clouds of voracious midges filled the air in the mornings and evenings.  The village’s remote
location and its midges would drive anyone mad, Andrew decided.

    Another glint came from another road-bend as the car drew nearer.

    The midges, out in force this morning, had left his arms and legs stinging and red-speckled with tiny
bites.  Still, he felt his reception in Caulshiels later today would be worth any discomfort now.  He glanced
down at his thighs, grooved with muscle, and at his waist, where there wasn’t an inch of extraneous fat.  He
imagined Janine’s reaction when he saw him again, so fit and desirable even though he was in his mid-
forties.  He imagined how regretful she’d look.  So satisfyingly regretful.

    And ashamed.  For in the pictures she’d emailed him lately, of her and her family, she’d appeared
dowdy and overweight.

    Then he felt guilty and reprimanded himself.  He shouldn’t gloat.  It wasn’t her fault they’d split up those
many years ago.  Actually, he’d dumped her.

    The car reappeared two bends ahead, its red bodywork still flashing in the morning sun.  Andrew
sensed something amiss about it – though he couldn’t identify what was amiss because immediately it
vanished again, between the folds in the hillside.

    He didn’t work it out until the car roared round the bend in front of him.  The problem was that the car
was driving on the wrong side of the road.

    A last-moment reflex made him twist the handlebars leftwards, into the roadside overlooking the lower
forest.  His feet left the pedals and landed on the road on either side of the bicycle.  Thus, when the car
smashed into him, his right leg took the brunt.

    There was a thunderous crack and blinding light – only later would he understand that the thunder and
lightning were the sound and pain of his right leg shattering.  He found himself airborne.  The road was
behind him and he was flying over, then falling into the trees on the lower slope.  What followed was like
plunging down a green shaft from whose sides protruded a thousand angry green arms that were intent on
punching and clubbing him.

    Finally, he stopped plunging, the arms stopped beating him and everything became still.  His only
sensation was of an uncomfortable pressure around his head – his cycling helmet felt too tight and
clamped his skull like a giant thumbscrew.  He reached under his chin and fumbled with the buckle on the
helmet’s strap.  The strap-ends parted at last.  The helmet left his head and soared into the sky.

    Why, he wondered, had the helmet defied gravity and flown away?  The answer was that, really, the
helmet had obeyed gravity.  He was dangling upside-down above the ground, wedged between a couple
of trees.

    “Not good,” he whispered.

    He tried pushing and kicking, to free himself from the branches.  But his right leg didn’t seem to
respond to his commands.  He twisted his head around and discovered the leg hanging at an impossible
angle beside him.

    Suddenly, a tsunami of pain rushed out of the smashed leg.  Andrew convulsed and the convulsion had
the effect of dislodging him from the branches.  He dropped.  Lacking the helmet’s protection, his head
thudded against the ground and the forestry plantation’s greenness gave way to blackness.

                                                                            * * * * *

    The greenness returned – dark in places, luminous in others.  Andrew found himself sprawled beneath
the spruce trees.  Around him, the ground was coated with green needles, strewn with brown cones, and
dappled with shadows and bright patches where the sunlight filtered through the branches.

    That was all he managed to take in before he felt the pain again.  For a time he could only lie on his
back and whisper, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

    The pain didn’t diminish, but a point seemed to come when he could function despite it.  He raised his
head and saw his right leg sticking crookedly from his body.  A red puddle had formed by his right thigh
and protruding from a wound in it was what he assumed was a piece of branch, which’d embedded itself
there and snapped off during his fall.

    Then Andrew realised he didn’t see a broken branch sticking into him.  He saw a broken bone sticking
out of him.

    He retched, though only a few strings of drool left his mouth because his stomach was empty.  He’d
skipped breakfast in Sighty Youth Hostel that morning, intending to work up an appetite during the twenty
mile cycle to Caulshiels.  The plan had been to tuck into Sunday lunch at Janine’s house.

    Sighty, Caulshiels, Janine…  Andrew remembered the world beyond this tiny pocket of forest.  He lifted
his arm and squinted at his wristwatch.  The watch-face was cracked but it still worked.

    11:49.

    He’d lain here for hours.  Yet the collision with the car couldn’t have thrown him far.  The road was surely
close by.  Why hadn’t the police and paramedics found him?  The driver of the red car, he surmised, hadn’t
contacted the emergency services.  After hitting Andrew, he or she had driven off.

    This meant he was in serious trouble.  

    Andrew tried to rally himself.  He recalled how, six years earlier, his then-wife had walked out on him
and returned to her home-city in Russia.  This had caused financial as well as emotional devastation – for
she’d left him a massive tax bill to sort out.  His savings vanished.  His business went under.  He was soon
knocking back two or three bottles of wine every evening and he gained 20 kilos.

    But he’d survived that.  Indeed, he’d emerged from the end of it better off – wiser, healthier, more
focused.

    “That which does not kill us,” he repeated, “makes us stronger.”

    He maneuvered himself onto his chest and started crawling up the slope, hands sinking into the mush of
needles, cones and dirt beneath him.  Then his broken leg started moving too and he was blasted with
pain again.  His face dropped into the tree-debris and he screamed.

    When he lifted his face again, his mouth was full of needles, soil and several small things that were
definitely moving.  He spat them out but an evil taste of rot and acidity remained in his mouth.  Something
with too many legs climbed over his top lip and up the side of his nose.

    He braced himself and began moving again.  The pain struck repeatedly but he didn’t let it overwhelm
him.  At last, he reached a place where the trees were sparser and the gradient steeper and he fancied
the ground here had started to sweep back up to the road’s edge.  By now his hands had acquired big
black mittens of dirt.  When he looked back, the wound with the protruding bone had grown from a hole
into a tattered bloody gash, which gave him nightmarish visions of the leg becoming gangrenous or him
dying of blood-loss.

    Andrew was about to resume crawling when, distantly, he heard a phone ringing.  The ringtone was the
tune of Money for Nothing by his favourite band, Dire Straits.  Was Janine calling him?  Wondering where
he’d got to, now that Sunday lunch was ready?

    The sound came from the slope below, back where the spruce trees grew densely.  He realised that if
he retrieved the phone, he could summon the emergency services, and so he slithered around and
crawled the other way.

    The ringing stopped after half-a-minute but by then he was sure of its direction.  He moved incredibly
slowly, his leg still bombarding him with pain.  After what seemed like hours, he heard the phone again.  
The ringing was much louder, but he could no longer discern the direction it came from.  He realised it was
above him.  Looking up, he saw his bicycle caught and suspended in the branches of a tree.  The panniers
were still in place against the rear wheel and the phone rang in one of them now.

    Andrew raised his arms but the bicycle was far out of reach.  

    The ringing stopped again and he imagined Janine shaking her head and saying, “I’ve called him twice
and he hasn’t answered.  He should’ve arrived ages ago.  I hope nothing’s happened.”

    Then he imagined Colin, her husband.  The chemistry between him and Colin hadn’t been great
whenever they’d met.  “You definitely arranged a time?  He definitely knew you were preparing lunch?”

    “Yes.”

    “So basically, he’s stood you up?”

    “That’s not the phrase I was thinking of…”

    “Well, you can’t deny the bastard has form in doing that.”

    Andrew thumped his hands against the trunk of the tree holding his bicycle aloft.  The trunk didn’t move.  
The bicycle stayed put.  How much time and energy had he wasted in this futile detour?

    But he wasn’t dead yet.  He would be, he had to be stronger.  He turned and began crawling up the
slope again.

                                                                            * * * * *

    The last metres before the road were treeless and covered in ferns.  They were also nearly vertical.  
Repeatedly, Andrew clutched the ferns and tried to haul himself upwards, but each time his grip weakened
and he slid back towards the trees while new pain erupted in his leg.

    Once the sun had wheeled around into the western half of the sky, the air filled again with midges.  They
swarmed over him and bit mercilessly at his bare skin.  Their bites burned until a mantle of fire seemed to
lie across him.

    Struggling up the ferny bank for the umpteenth time, Andrew focused on a few basic things: Natalia
deserting him, those terrifying meetings with the Inland Revenue people, those lonely evenings when he’d
lain on the sofa and emptied bottles of Merlot down himself.  Yet he hadn’t succumbed.  No, the
experience had remade him.  He’d come back, stronger and better!

    Suddenly, his face was scraping against a horizontal surface.  He dragged himself further until his
whole body was free of the ferns.  Then for a long time he lay still on the road.

    He should have felt euphoric – but he didn’t.  Something else had occurred to him.  His survival didn’t
just depend on him being back on this road.  It also depended on someone driving along the road and
finding him.  And this morning he’d noted how sparse the traffic was here.

    He became aware of something lying a few inches away.  It resembled a huge burst boil, stalks of red
hair sticking out of it, black pus leaking from it.

    “Maybe,” he whispered to the flattened squirrel that he’d passed a few minutes before the collision, “I’m
a loser too.”

                                                                            * * * * *

    Later, the darkness that’d gathered over the road was dispelled by approaching headlights.  Andrew
heard a vehicle slow down and stop, doors open on either side of it and two sets of footsteps come
towards him.

    “I’m strong,” he whispered.  “Well, sort of.  Stronger than being dead.”

    However, when the newcomers spoke, they appeared not to have heard him.

    “Jesus Christ,” said one.

    “I told you, didn’t I?” the other lamented.  “Halfway back from Caulshiels, we hit something!”

    “Well, I don’t remember it.  I don’t remember a thing coming back.”

    “How can you not remember?  You were driving the fucking car!”

    “I keep telling you.  I can drive on autopilot.  Might be drunk and stoned, but give me the keys and stick
me behind the wheel and I’ll get home.  Somehow.”

    What the voices were saying didn’t quite register with Andrew, but he was pleased to have someone to
talk to.  “Admittedly I’m not physically strong now.  But I will be.  When I recover, I will be stronger.”

    The newcomers continued their own conversation.  “Fuck’s sake.  The state of his leg!”

    “Aw, no.  That’s gross!”  

    “You think he’s dead?”

    “Looks like it.”

    Andrew started to understand them.  “I’m not dead,” he argued.  “I’m strong.”

    “What do we do?”

    “Leave him.  It’s too late.  He’s a corpse.”

    “But we can’t leave him right here – someone else could find him five minutes from now.  We need time
to figure out a story for the cops.  About where we were last night.”

    “Well.  It’s obvious what we do, then.”

    “Agreed.”

    Andrew felt hands grasp him under his armpits.

    “Jeez!  He stinks!”

    “Crawling with midges too.”

    As Andrew was lifted, some of his weight shifted onto his right leg and the pain flared again.  He
shuddered violently, his head jerked up and he glimpsed the front of the car between the headlight-
beams.  It had red paintwork and a dent disfigured the line of its bonnet.

    “Shit!  He’s alive!”

    “Come on, we have to do this.”

    “But he’s alive!”

    “Listen to me.  We have to do this.”

    “Oh, bugger…”

    Andrew was lifted off his feet so that, mercifully, his weight was no longer on the shattered leg.  Instead,
he had a blissful, floating feeling.  It was like he was levitating, a cushion of air separating his tortured body
from the ground.

    But then, as the two men swung him, he realised what was happening.  And just before he was
released, he screamed, “That which does not kill us – ”

    He flew across the edge of the road and over and down into the spruce trees again.
About Jim Mountfield

Jim Mountfield was born in Northern
Ireland, was educated in Scotland and
currently lives in Sri Lanka.  His work has
appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms,
in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Death's
Head Grin, the Dream Zone, Flashes in the
Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror Zine,
Hungur, Legend, Roadworks, Sorcerous
Signals and others.  He also blogs
regularly
atwww.bloodandporridge.co.uk.   
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